Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (10 page)

“I don't know much about the jungle, I'm afraid.”

“When civilization's devices don't operate, it's worth trying drums or a monkey.”

My penis had now grown fully erect under her soft, busy fingers. She skillfully and greedily began to use her lips and tongue, and a meaningful silence descended upon us for a while. As the birds outside chirped and went about the work of making a living, the two of us began a second round of sex.


After our long second bout of lovemaking, punctuated by an intermission, we climbed out of bed, lazily gathered our clothes from the floor, and dressed. We went out to the terrace and, sipping hot herb tea, gazed across the valley at the large white concrete house there. We sat side by side on the weathered wooden deck chairs and breathed in deeply the fresh dampness of the mountain air. Through the woods to the southwest was a small patch of sparkling ocean, a mere fragment of the enormous Pacific. The mountain slopes around were already dyed with autumn colors, minute gradations of yellow and red, with an intrusion of green from the clumps of evergreens. The mix of these vivid colors made the white concrete of Menshiki's house stand out all the more. It was an almost obsessive white that looked like it would never be dirtied or treated with contempt by such things as wind, rain, dust, or even time itself.
White is a color, too
, I thought distractedly. Definitely not the lack of color. We sat there on the lounge chairs for a long time without saying a word, silence an entirely natural companion.

“Mr. Menshiki in his white mansion,” she said after a while. “Sounds like the beginning of an amusing fairy tale.”

But what awaited me was, of course, not some “amusing fairy tale.” Or a blessing in disguise, either. But by the time that became clear to me, there was no turning back.


On Friday at one thirty Menshiki appeared in the same Jaguar. The deep roar of the engine as it climbed the steep slope grew louder as it approached, and finally came to a stop in front of the house. As before, he shut the door of the car with the same solid sound, and removed his sunglasses and slipped them into the breast pocket of his jacket. An exact repeat of the previous visit. This time, though, he wore a white polo shirt with a blue-gray cotton jacket, cream-colored chinos, and brown leather shoes. He was so impeccably dressed that he could have been a model in a magazine, though he didn't give the impression that it was all
too perfect
. It looked casual, and naturally neat. And that abundant white hair of his was, like the walls of his mansion, a pure, unadulterated white. Just as I had the first time, I watched him approach through a gap in the curtains.

The front doorbell rang and I opened it and let him in. This time he didn't hold his hand out to shake mine. He just looked me in the eye, and gave a small smile and a brief nod of greeting. I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd been a bit anxious that every time we met I'd have to go through one of his firm handshakes. Once again, I showed him into the living room and had him sit on the sofa. And brought out two cups of freshly brewed coffee from the kitchen.

“I didn't know what I should wear,” he said, sounding apologetic. “Is this outfit all right?”

“It doesn't matter at this point. We can decide at the end how you should be dressed. A suit, or shorts and sandals, we can adjust the clothes later on however we want.”

Or show you holding a Starbucks cup, I added to myself.

“Knowing you're going to be modeling makes you anxious. I know I won't have to take off all my clothes, but it still makes me feel like I'm being stripped down.”

“You could be right. Models for paintings sometimes pose nude—in most cases actually nude, in some cases more metaphorically. The artist wants to view the model's essence, meaning he has to strip away the clothed, outer appearance. To do that, of course, takes great powers of observation and a sharp intuition.”

Menshiki spread his hands on his lap and seemed to be inspecting them. He then looked up. “I heard that you don't use a live model when you paint a portrait.”

“That's right. I meet the subject once and have a long talk with him, but don't have him model live for me.”

“Is there a reason for that?”

“No real reason. I've just found, through experience, that things go more smoothly that way. When we first meet I concentrate as much as I can, trying to get a take on the subject's looks, expressions, quirks, and tendencies, and brand those into my memory. Once I've done that, it's just a question of reproducing them from memory.”

“That's very intriguing,” Menshiki said. “So, days later you take the memory you've burned into your brain, rearrange all that as an image, and reproduce it as a work of art. You must have a gift to do that—to have such extraordinary visual recall.”

“I wouldn't call it a gift, exactly. More of a skill set, I'd say.”

“Maybe that's why, when I saw some of the portraits you've done, I sensed something unique in them. Compared with other standard portraits—portraits done purely as commodities. The way everything's reproduced so vividly, you might say…”

He took a sip of coffee, took a light-cream linen handkerchief from his jacket pocket, and wiped his mouth. “But this time, unusually, you'll be using a model—with me in front of you, in other words—as you do the portrait.”

“Exactly. At your request.”

He nodded. “Truthfully, I was curious. About how it feels to become part of a painting, right in front of your eyes. I wanted to actually experience it. Not simply have my painting done, but to experience it as a kind of exchange.”

“An exchange?”

“Between the two of us, you and me.”

I was silent. The meaning of the expression “an exchange” eluded me for a moment.

“We exchange parts of us with each other,” Menshiki explained. “I offer something of myself, and you offer something of yourself. It doesn't have to be something valuable. It can be simple, like a kind of sign.”

“Like children exchange pretty seashells?”


I thought about this. “Sounds interesting, but the problem is I don't have any nice seashells to offer you.”

“You're not so comfortable doing it this way? Are you intentionally avoiding that kind of exchange? Is that why you don't use live models? If that's true, then I can—”

“No—that's not it. I don't use models because I don't need them. That's all. I'm not trying to avoid an interchange between people. I've studied painting for a long time, and have used live models more times than I can remember. If you don't mind the drudgery of sitting still in a hard chair for hours at a time, I'm totally fine with you posing for me.”

“I don't mind,” Menshiki said, spreading his palms up, lightly lifting them upward. “Then why don't we commence the drudgery?”


We went into the studio. I brought over a dining room chair and had Menshiki sit in that. I let him assume whatever posture he wanted. I sat on an old wooden stool facing him (no doubt the stool Tomohiko Amada used when he painted), and started sketching with a soft pencil. I needed to decide on a basic approach of how I was going to reproduce his face on canvas.

“Is it boring to sit there? If you'd like, we could listen to some music,” I said.

“If it doesn't bother you, I'd love to hear some music,” Menshiki said.

“Why don't you choose something from the shelf in the living room.”

He spent about five minutes perusing the selection of records and returned with a four-disc boxed set of LPs of Georg Solti conducting a performance of Richard Strauss's
Der Rosenkavalier
. The orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, the singers Régine Crespin and Yvonne Minton.

“Do you like
Der Rosenkavalier
?” he asked me.

“I've never heard it.”

“It's an unusual opera. The plot's critical, of course, like with all operas, but with this one even if you don't know the plot it's easy to give yourself over to the music and be completely enveloped by that world. The world of supreme bliss Strauss achieved at the peak of his powers. When it was first performed, people criticized it as nostalgic, unadventurous even, where in reality the music is quite progressive and uninhibited. He was influenced by Wagner, but Strauss creates his own strange, unique musical realm. Once you get into this music you can't get enough of it. I usually prefer Karajan's or Erich Kleiber's version, and have never heard Solti's. If it's all right with you, I'd like to take this opportunity to hear it.”

“Of course. Let's listen to it.”


He placed the record on the turntable, lowered the needle, and carefully adjusted the volume on the amp. He went back to his chair, settled into a proper pose, and concentrated on the music flowing from the speakers. I did some quick sketches in my sketchbook of his face from several angles. His face was overall nicely put together, the features distinctive enough that I didn't find it hard to capture the unique details of each. In the space of thirty minutes I completed five sketches from different angles. But when I examined them again, I was struck by an odd, helpless feeling. My sketches had accurately captured what was distinctive about his face, yet there was nothing about them beyond the sense that they were
well-done drawings
. They were all oddly shallow and superficial, devoid of depth. They were no different from caricatures drawn by some street artist. I tried doing a few more sketches, with basically the same result.

For me, this was pretty unusual. I had years of experience reconstructing people's faces in a drawing, and flattered myself that I was good at it. Whether with a pencil or a paintbrush I could almost always come up with several mental images of what I was after with no trouble. I rarely struggled to decide on the composition of a painting. But now, with Menshiki as my model, not a single image came to me.

Perhaps I was overlooking something important. I couldn't help but think that. Maybe Menshiki was adeptly hiding it from me. Or maybe it didn't exist in him to begin with.

When the B side of the first of the four records in
Der Rosenkavalier
set finished I gave up, shut my sketchbook, and laid down my pencil. I lifted the needle, took the record off the turntable, and returned it to the boxed set. I glanced at my watch and sighed.

“I'm finding it very hard to draw you,” I admitted.

He looked at me in surprise. “In what way?” he asked. “Are you saying there's some pictorial issue with the way I look?”

I shook my head slightly. “No, it's not that. Of course there's nothing wrong with your face.”

“Then what's making it hard?”

“I wish I could tell you. It just feels that way. Maybe we still haven't
enough yet, as you put it. Haven't traded enough seashells.”

Menshiki smiled, looking a bit perplexed. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

I stood up from the stool, went over to the window, and watched the birds flying over the woods.

“Mr. Menshiki, if it's all right with you, could you give me a little more information about yourself? I know next to nothing about you.”

“Of course. I'm not trying to hide anything. No outrageous secrets or anything I'm trying to keep from you. I can tell you just about everything. What sort of information were you thinking of?”

“Well—for starters, I don't even know your full name.”

“That's right!” he said, looking a bit surprised. “Now that you mention it, you're absolutely right. I was so caught up in talking I forgot to give this to you.”

He took a black leather holder from a pocket of his chinos and removed a business card. He handed me the card, and I read it. The thick white card simply read:

On the back was an address in Kanagawa Prefecture, a phone number, and an email address. That was all. No company name or title.

in my name is the character that means ‘to cross a river,' ” Menshiki said. “I don't know why I was given that name. I've never had much to do with water.”

“The name Menshiki isn't one you see very often.”

“I heard our family's roots are in Shikoku, but I have no connection to Shikoku at all. I was born and raised in Tokyo, all my schooling was in Tokyo. And I prefer soba noodles to udon, which Shikoku is famous for.” Menshiki laughed.

“May I ask how old you are?”

“Of course. I turned fifty-four last month. How old do I look to you?”

I shook my head. “Honestly, I had no idea. That's why I asked.”

“It must be this white hair,” he said with a smile. “People often tell me they can't tell my age because of the white hair. You often hear about people whose hair turned white overnight because they were terrified. People often ask if that's what happened with me, but I never had such a traumatic experience. I just tended to have a lot of white hair, ever since I was young. By the time I was in my mid-forties it was completely white. It's weird, though, since my grandfather, father, and two older brothers are all bald. In the whole family I'm the only one who has completely white hair.”

“If you don't mind me asking, what sort of work are you involved in?”

“I don't mind at all. It's just—hard to talk about.”

“If you'd rather not…”

“It's a little embarrassing, actually,” he said. “Right now I'm not working at all. Not that I'm getting unemployment insurance or anything, but officially I'm unemployed. I spend a few hours each day online in my office in stock trading and currency exchange, though we're not talking large amounts. More a hobby or to kill time. Training to keep my mind active. Like a pianist practices scales every day.”

Menshiki took a quiet, deep breath and recrossed his legs. “In the past I started and ran a tech-related company, but not long ago I decided to sell all my stock and step down. The buyer was a major telecommunications company. That sale meant I have enough savings to live on for a while. I used that opportunity to sell my house in Tokyo and move here. Basically, I'm retired. My savings are divided among several overseas banks, and I move those around depending on variable exchange rates, so I make a bit of a profit that way.”

“I see,” I said. “Do you have a family?”

“No family. I've never been married.”

“So you live in that huge house all by yourself?”

He nodded. “I do. At this point I have no household staff. I've lived by myself for a long time and am used to doing housework. But since it's such a big place, I can't clean it all myself, so I hire a cleaning service to come in once a week. Other than that, I pretty much take care of everything. What about you?”

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